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A key storyline of President Joe Biden’s over- seas trip was how different Biden was from President Donald Trump, and indeed he was — except in one crucial area.
Biden’s hawkishness on China, which figured prominently, was a reflec- tion of how fundamentally Trump changed our pos- ture toward Beijing.
It is the ultimate victory for a politician if he doesn’t just reorient his own party, but the other party — Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher both
did this, producing more moderate Democratic and Labor leaders in Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, respectively.
On China, Trump’s wrenching shift in the U.S. approach is now getting the tribute of broad acceptance by a successor who has nothing good to say about him and wants, in fact, to differentiate him- self from the former president as much as possible. It is impossible to imagine President Barack Obama during his time in office, just five years ago, pressuring reluctant European allies to take a tougher line on China, as Biden did over the past week.
For 20 years, the U.S. had operated on the bipar- tisan assumption that wel- coming Beijing into the international system and establishing closer com- mercial ties would pay off in a liberalizing China.
By the end of the Obama years, it was increasingly clear that this strategy had come a cropper. The Obama team talked of a “pivot to Asia,” or shifting attention and resources from the Middle East to Asia, but this was more sloganeering than substance.
Even as China invested massively in its military, encroached further on the South China Sea, contin- ued to engage in cyber espionage and hacking, launched the Belt and Road Initiative, started to build its own international financial architecture via the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and began its campaign of cul- tural genocide against the Uyghurs, Obama remained accommodating.
The situation resembled the end of the Jimmy Carter years, when any hope of the Soviets moderating their behavior was blown away by the invasion of Afghanistan.
The old consensus on China had become unsus- tainable, but it took Trump, contemptuous of elite opinion and willing to blow things up (or at least talk about it), to demolish it.
For years, the security and trade relationships with China had been con- sidered separate realms, or worse, we’d been afraid of pushing too hard on secu- rity matters for fear of upsetting commercial rela- tionships.
Trump linked trade and security, and sent the message to the world that the co-mingling of U.S. and Chinese economies wasn’t inevitable and, indeed, could be reversed. Trump over-personalized his relationship with President Xi and oversold what might come of the trade war with China, but the reorientation was unmistakable. Beneath the drumbeat of controversy from the top, though, Trump officials undertook a thoughtful, deliberate effort to set out and implement a new strategy.
The administration pro- duced several important documents across the gov- ernment — from the Department of Defense to the National Security Council, to the State Department — that crystal- lized the new thinking. The administration worked to buttress alliances in Asia and suc- cessfully lobbied European countries to exclude Huawei from its networks, part of a broad pushback on all fronts, including defense, diplomacy, cyber, telecom, trade and human rights.
By any fair measure, this was a serious campaign and China’s behavior in recent years has only underlined its necessity.
It would be foolish to trash all of this only because it had the name “Trump” attached to it. To his credit, Biden hasn’t. It remains to be seen how tough-minded he really will be on China, but direction- ally, his push to get allies on the record condemning Chinese malfeasance is welcome.
Biden’s bonhomie with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel was fine as far as it went, and a marked difference from Trump.
But, more importantly, his emphasis on what might be the defining con- frontation of the first half of the 21st century made an implicit nod to the enduring strategic trans- formation brought about by his predecessor.